This is the third in a series of posts on the concept of headship in the Christian church and community. The articles will offer a clear outline and critique of the headship practice and system and will further explore the consequences of headship on men, women, relationships, the church, and the broader world. Catch up with Part 1, Part 2 , Part 4, and Part 5 of the Headship Madness series.
The headship litmus test is rigged.
How? It is a simple chain of logic that can be summarized as follows:
- Women can do anything, as women, that doesn’t “violate male headship.”
- What does or does not “violate male headship” is (inescapably) subjective, and therefore requires local definition.
- Local definitions of what constitute “headship violation” are established by men, not women.
- Result: Whatever the local male-authorities say isn’t acceptable for a woman to do isn’t acceptable for a woman to do. For all practical purposes, men can never be wrong in their appropriation and distribution of authority and power.
So the headship litmus test is not only a theo-political tool for establishing male control, but it is also invulnerable. It is self-authenticating. There is no real mechanism by which an erroneous application of headship can be corrected. Whatever men say is acceptable for women to do (or not do) becomes the rule, since the rules must originate from a “head” in the first place. This scam has occurred for thousands of years and has only been recently exposed to the light since the late 1700s (most significantly by Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman).
Since headship’s definition is provided by those who both “have” and wield headship, there is essentially no limit to the extent men’s authority can prevail over women’s, and there is no limit to the extent that women’s freedom can be limited. It’s a vicious circle with a near limitless capacity to enslave. I myself was part of a church that disallowed women to pray audibly with men, because it was decided that this would violate male headship. There was no way this could be corrected, because the sole elder was male and, as such, was the one who decided what qualified as a violation of headship. If the same pastor forbade women from driving their family car to church on Sunday, because he felt that women driving violated men’s headship, this would likely be the law of the church (and, given some models of eldership, considered a divine extension of the law of God).
If you’re getting lost in all of this, think of the situation as a boys vs. girls basketball game where only the boys can be referees and only boys can change the rules of the game—with as much severity and bias as they wish. Or, if you’re familiar with geopolitics, it’s much like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who promises to feed everyone adequately—all while penalizing those who try to eat their more than the state-allowed rations. No one, not even those who starve to death, can be said to be “hungry” in this model. Or, if you’re familiar with Reformed theology, it’s like the apologetic of classic Roman Catholicism: the scriptures establish authority for the (Roman magisterial) Church, but only the Church can authoritatively interpret the scriptures, which gives it that authority in the first place.
The point in all of these examples is what I already mentioned above: there is no genuine mechanism of correction, so it makes little sense to honor internal claims of being “right.”
The Convenient (and Troublesome) Shifting Sands of Complementarian Headship
The notoriously subjective aspect of headship is inevitably present in the most respected complementarian literature. In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper speaks of men and women’s feelings and their inner “sense” of being male or female (RBMW, 36). Many scoff at this retreat to personal emotions. But, what are the alternatives? Forcing biblical texts to portray modern embodiments of timeless gender roles? Complementarians are too sensible for that route. Thus, Piper continues to define what exactly headship means in the following, abstract (and supposedly universal) terms:
To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man is personal and directive, it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership, and thus controvert God’s created order…[influences of women on men are] non-personal and, therefore, not necessarily an offense against God’s order (RBMW, 51).
In other words, (firstly) men (or at least husbands) should not be personally and directly influenced by women (or at least wives), and (secondly) women are allowed to do whatever essentially doesn’t upset the male ego. So, if I happen to find it offensive when my wife gives me driving directions to the newest coffee shop in town, then she is sinning against God by violating my headship. If I am not offended, then she is not sinning against God because she is not violating my headship.
This is incredible. By virtue of my headship and inner senses (a 6th sense? Ninja instinct? What is this?), I literally determine the morality of my wife’s actions. I am functioning with no less authority than Moses in OT Israel (cf. this radical notion in Waldron, Man as a Priest in His Family). You might ask: What if I’m just being a self-absorbed, insecure moron by my being offended by something as silly as driving directions? What if the problem is not my wife, but me? The answer is that none of this matters. The female in the situation must abide by my perception of headship violation. Since she has no “headship,” whatever authority or input she contributes is ipso facto inferior to my own.
Contrary to Piper, I would personally find it offensive (and annoying) if my wife insisted on influencing me in only an impersonal and indirect way. This approach—which smacks of Rogerian therapy—would also encourage manipulation, not to mention a marriage plagued by passive-aggression. (Who wants that?)
Thus, even with additional qualifiers like “personal” and “direct” influence, the Christian has come no closer to an eternal, timeless, universal, context-less, non-encultrated, non-linguistically embedded, non-socially constructed meaning of headship. Instead, the Christian has only entered into more subjectivity; what one man finds personally and directly influencing on him may not be the case for another. And since it is this same man who has ultimate authority in the relationship, he is the only one to authoritatively declare what constitutes a violation of his own headship.
Linda Belleville demonstrates the subjectivity of drawing lines in her response to the November 1995 edition of the CBMW newsletter:
According to the CBMW, it is okay for a woman to direct Christian education in her local church, but it is not okay for a woman to direct Christian education for her region or denomination. On what basis? The perceived degree of governance involved. Yet, in a congregational context, it is actually the local church that makes the decisions, not regional or denominational boards or councils. Also, CBMW says it is okay for a woman to be a Bible professor on a secular campus but not on a Christian campus. On what basis? The perceived degree of teaching authority (Women Leaders and the Church, 151).
And whose perceptions carry the weight in these matters? The woman under question? The women leaders (if there are any) in these various spheres? Most definitely not.
Sometimes complementarians explicitly concede to such subjectivity. For example, Piper and Grudem say in the same volume:
We recognize that these lectures and addresses could be delivered in a spirit and demeanor that would assault the principle of male leadership. But it is not necessary that they do so. This is most obvious when the woman publicly affirms that principle with intelligence and gladness. We also recognize the ambiguities involved in making these distinctions between the kinds of public speaking that are appropriate and inappropriate. Our expectation is not that we will all arrive at exactly the same sense of where to draw these lines, but that we might come to affirm together the underlying principles (RBMW, 85).
The problem is that these “lines” have become so diverse that talking about having the same “underlying principles” has become meaningless.
Consider Craig Blomberg’s application of 1 Tim 2 and the biblical “principle” of headship:
…Today, however, for a whole host of reasons, it is perfectly possible for a husband and wife to each pastor their own congregations. It is possible for one of the two to be the lead elder in one congregation while the other worships in and submits to the authority of an entirely different church nearby. When times of services in the two congregations vary sufficiently, such dual allegiances need not prevent one or both partners from also attending the congregation in which the other has “membership” in an act of support for their spouse. One can certainly debate the merit of such arrangements, but they are by no means impossible or unheard of. Thus a married woman who feels led to become a senior pastor may have opportunities to do so without violating Paul’s principles for the role relationships in a marriage (Reconsidering Gender, 59).
As late as 2005, Schreiner called Blomberg’s view “complementarian” (Two Views, 125; cf “Review of Two Views,” 23-30). But I seriously doubt that many other “complementarians” like Schreiner would consider Blomberg’s “underlying principles” the same as their own. (Perhaps this is why Blomberg can say, “Most of the time I just feel like I’m sitting on an uncomfortable fence, getting shot at from both sides!”; Reconsidering Gender, 50). Indeed, there are more fundamental disagreements at play; it is illusory to talk about a consensus of “principles.”
Nevertheless, Piper and Grudem actually attempt to delineate how a person knows when headship is being violated in these fuzzy areas. They say the “most obvious” sign that a woman is not making an “assault on the principle of male leadership” (“assault”?), is “when the woman publicly affirms that principle with intelligence and gladness.” Would this include the woman who preaches from the pulpit to the church congregation? According to some complementarians, yes (e.g., Grudem, Piper), others (e.g., Blomberg, Frame; see DCL, 639), no. In either case, what the particular woman says or how she appears doesn’t matter anyway; the men in charge of the church will “ultimately” decide if she is violating somebody’s headship or not.
Again, the social structure is rigged to favor male persons, and again, the assertions (in this case, about a woman’s attitude of “intelligence and gladness”) are just another layer of interchange to confuse onlookers and keep the political-power structure intact.
When Wayne Grudem Meets Ben Bernanke
This situation is similar to economics and fiat currency in America.
If a person came up to you and forcefully took 90% of the cash out of your wallet, we would identify this as “robbery.” It’s simple, direct, and visible. But if we add multiple layers of interchange in this act—the printing of cash by a central bank, the further creation of cash-currency by electronic numbers at other banks, the establishment of laws forbidding all other forms of currency, and about a half-century worth of time instead of an immediate act—the end result of losing 90% of your wealth is the same (via inflation), but hardly anyone will identify this series of acts as “robbery.” The whole system is intended to be complicated so theft cannot be identified. But theft is still theft, no matter how complicated or long it takes.
It’s similar in American evangelical complementarianism. Refusing to hire a person for a job for no other reason than their sex or ethnicity is “sexism” and “racism” in every sphere of society—business, school, government, etc. —except for certain evangelical churches. When the application for associate pastor is received and rejected because of the applicant’s race, this is racism, but if it is because of the applicant’s sex, this is not “sexism.” Instead, it is a complicated, multi-layered system called “complementarianism” (soundly defined by far-away experts in the halls of academia). If a person just said “complementarianism is sexist and unjustly keeps men in control,” this would never fly—just as stealing money directly from one’s pocket would never fly. So a multi-layered, institutionally-recognized system has to be created so the scam can’t be found and can’t be overturned.
And make no mistake, it is a system. It involves new vocabulary (e.g., biblical “headship,” “role,” which takes on a completely new meaning, see Giles, PP 29:1; “complementarity” morphs into “complementarianism,” etc.), new confessions (e.g., 2000 revision to “Baptist Faith and Message”; Danvers Statement), new parachurch organizations (e.g., Gospel Coalition, Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), new Bible translations (yes, the ESV is theo-politically correct for its audience and a pro-complementarian publisher), new institutions, and new policies. In the end, this system has delegitimized an American evangelical from associating the sin of sexism with the system of “complementarianism” and their particular concept of “headship.” Hundreds of thousands have bought into the game.
Just as rigged central banking has lasted since the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 to the present day, so complementarianism from 1977 (when Knight III redefined “role” and began the scam) continues to be promulgated in churches and seminaries around the world. Complex systems, whether corrupt or not, require time before gaining public awareness. Both of these particular, fraudulent systems, however, are now more publicly exposed than ever before. No longer are people being fooled by obfuscated language, dubious policies, top-down decrees, and elitist reassurances. (It is no wonder that organizations like CBE are growing so greatly in size and influence.)
Hopefully, throughout all of this discussion, it has become at least somewhat clear how the headship litmus test—and the system it represents—is rigged from beginning to end.
In the next segment, we’ll learn that when certain constituencies monopolize the microphone at church and abroad, the biblical teaching about marriage gets buried in the sand while one small metaphor (“head”) becomes a license to imperialize God’s kingdom. (See Part 4).